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Lombardia Redux: Brothers In Arms

The ProTour may be done for the winter, but we can certainly spend a few more minutes enjoying the past as our own Nick O’Brien regales us with a blow by blow account of his own Giro di Lombardia, chasing the race and battling his brother to the top of the famous Ghisallo climb…

My “Fratello” Ciclismo and our Lombardy Pilgrimage
It’s that time of year when the pro peloton has that end of school feeling, but before they rush off for some well earned beach action in sunnier climates, there’s one final race that will crown even the most dismal season off on a high note: the Giro di Lombardia…

La Dolce Vita… Great food, great scenery, fantastic weather – Italy is the place to watch world class bike racing.

For me, the “Race of the Falling Leaves” has become an annual Pilgrimage with the Cyclist Chapel at the top of the fearsome Madonna di Ghisallo climb being my chosen location for worship to all things Ciclismo!

As one of the ‘official’ PEZ-Crew covering the race, I smartly begin the day with a nice lakeside lunch in Como with friends before a leisurely ride out to the famous climb to watch the race come through, or that’s the plan anyways.

When I arrived yesterday from London I did as any good cyclist would and headed straight to my local bike shop to catch up on the gossip and get the infamous Italian predictions. To the man, everyone is backing Bettini after his domination in the manner of the greats in Zurich – who would bet against “Golden Balls” winning this the 100th Centenary Giro di Lombardia? That’s 100 years old!!!!

Nick (looking somewhat jet-lagged after the flight down from London) asks ex Italian Champ and Gewiss Pro Giuseppi Tartaggia for his Lombardy tips – “Bettini, Bettini, Bettini “.

This race is epic – it’s woven with Italian tradition, steeped in history, tales of super human efforts and heroic victories, that’s why my suggestion that the Aussie rider Cadel Evans might surprise a few people (following a tip from a Pro in the UK who reckoned he had the inside track!) is met with roars of laughter. I didn’t say how he’d surprise them – any way these Italians are far to patriotic (read: insular) and I leave the shop convincing no one that a “corriedore straniere” (foreign rider) will win. Don’t you just love small town attitude – and this was in Milan!

The atmosphere in Como is buzzing as Saturday afternoon shoppers in their best Prada mingle with Castelli-clad bike fans. You could only be in Italy.

I enjoy a tasty pasta and “dolce” with my brother and friends in a perfectly located Como cafй – situated to afford watching the race unfold on the huge screens on the finish line. As the race hits it’s first climb of the day at Intelvi with a small break forming, we decide its probably about time we headed out – destination: Madonna del Ghilsallo.

The Brothers O’Brien prepare to do battle, outside the worlds most beautiful race HQ Villa Olmo.

Brotherly Love
Like me, my brother Dom is a born again cyclist having had the longest winter layoff of any athlete ever – 20 years of 20 cigarettes & 10 pints a day. He’s rediscovered in the last couple of years the joy & pain that goes with all cycling’s great comebacks! To be fair, in his day he was a good rider – junior national level, good in the hills, cheeky little sprint with a palmares I (as a younger brother by 2 years) envied!

But, and here’s the rub, since both our comebacks I’ve always had the upper hand – due in no small part to the fact that I began my comeback some 3 years before his attempt. Our form has been levelling a bit, however, (no doubt, as his dorment talent returns) and this, combined with Dom’s sensational win in a local 4th Cat Criterium has served to rock my confidence somewhat.

Now whilst I would not say we are intensely competitive siblings, there has always been an edge to our relationship, ever since as teenagers we decided to split our shared bedroom into our own halves which was fine – until I realized that his side had the door and the Hinault poster!

So what’s all this got to do with with Lombardia? Well everything of course, as we weave our way along the lake road both of us have one thing on our minds – to reach the top of the Ghisallo first and thus enjoy full bragging rights for ever and eternity at all family functions, meals, parties and any other opportunity to slip it into conversation. This is the stuff legends will be built on.

So the pros have ridden 6 hours before they get to the climb, big deal – we’ve got the excuses, the motivation and the blatant humiliation that only 2 brothers can chuck at each other to contend with. It transpires that both of us have been getting in a bit of sly mileage back in the UK, whilst never admitting it to the other. In fact bare faced lies from “just can’t get the time to train these days” to “that Glandular fever’s back” have been sprinkled liberally whenever we’ve spoken over the last couple of weeks.

Cunego’s Fan Club were going to be disappointed- yup Dom got Nick in the final sprint.

The beautiful ride out to Bellagio (the lakeside town that marks the start of the climb) is taken at a steady tempo. On this cracking Autumn day the scenery is stunning and if that doesn’t take your breath away the first few hairpins as you turn up to Ghisallo certainly will. The crowds are already out in force and Dom – ever the Showman – does his best Lucien Van Impe impersonation and tries to jump me in the first km, big mistake….
He’s not ridden the climb like me (once – last year) and my experience tells as I sit steady and claw him back – or is it just because I can’t accelerate – anyhow we’re back together riding side by side… This climb is pure evil at first (even on a dry day like today, the series of 14% hairpins winding along a chestnut-lined climb that provide enough debris to make each turn a bit more hazardous) and both of us are already running out of gears. Not surprising that an hour or so later Bettini is going to blow the race apart on these same slopes.

I’m playing more of a Simoni role to Dom’s “Il Grillo” but the fact that I’ve got a 26 rear sprocket is helping me as Dom’s decision to ride a 23 is backfiring! Still, we’re passing more riders than pass us and we reach the midway point at the village of Guello together – where the road levels and we both get a bit of a breather whilst still tapping along at a good speed.

The warm weather is wonderfull for October, but we’re both looking a bit heated as we start the final ascent around the last 3kms with the crowd getting thicker on every bend. Brotherly love is put on hold and both of us give it large side by side overtaking even more club riders.

Knowing the final straight is just 2 turns above us – I use my knowledge from last year to edge ahead and open a gap I feel is enough for the WIN! I wind it up past the crowds sitting with there legs hanging over the walls that lead to the Chapel, but soon realize that my final effort has been made too soon as I slow horribly to a crawl – Dom just pips me under the banner marking the summit…

…As we freewheel past the crowds, both of us too knackered to talk – I think we both realize we’re to old for this. But considering the number of riders we passed on the climb we’re not the worst, so where there’s hope there’s always an older brother goading you on – sod this – time for a well earned Cappucino and Dom’s buying!

The Ultimate Shrine to all things Ciclismo, the chapel at Ghisallo is the perfect Italian blend of religion and sport.

We pull on our cool Italian inspired retro winter warmers (supplied courtesy of the guys at Rapha Clothing- another perk of being a ‘legit’ journo) and spend a half hour sipping coffee al fresco at the perfectly positioned “trattoria” at the top (only in Italy will you get this combination of great food, scenery and a bike race in perfect harmony). We then pay homage at the Chapel and check out all the hundreds of riders milling around outside.

A couple of Rapha’s finest enjoy the atmosphere and sunshine.

The atmosphere is building as we position ourselves on the 2nd to last hairpin with awesome views over the valley below. Suddenly the crowd is awakened by the sound of the TV helicopter appearing over the mountain ridge like something out of “Apocalypse Now” with the lead group of four dancing up the slopes like pedalling jockeys – we get to see how it should be done!

Dom’s dorment talent is re-ignited after 20 years… but the tifosi are more interested in the stunning view.

This was a true “Classic” show of bike racing with the gaps between each splintered group enabling us to pick out riders at will as they were spread out all over the slopes of the climb. This was not the usual long wait only to see the peloton fly by in 20 seconds – this race was a true monument with only 91 finishers from 193.

We saw sights that showed just how hard this climb can be:
• last year’s winner Cunego (who’s Fan Club had been so confident earlier that day) struggling to hold Rebellin’s wheel 30 secs after the leaders
• my man Cadel Evans in agony way off the pace (don’t tell the Guys at Cicli Tartaggia!)
• and even ex. TDF yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler came past looking mighty average minutes down – all this damage from just an 8km climb!

It made both Dom & I feel even better about our ride witnessing some of the finest Pros in the world suffer on this climb, and appreciate Bettini’s ride as one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

Bettini and the lead group dance around the hairpins before heading back to Como leaving the race in pieces.

World Class riders are made to look like Signor Average on the Ghisallo.

Once the final rider came through (a good 15mins later) we began our descent, Dom cutting a dash in his Rapha supplied “Angel of the Mountain” wind stopper, even in the land of La Bella Figura he scrubbed up well. But his descending technique was not as good as mine (I know it’s sad but maybe I could salvage a bit of respect if I got to the bottom first) so I pulled away a bit as we screamed round the switch backs.

After Dom’s triumph he begins his descent back to the lake… shame he bottled out on the corners and his little Brother got away

Once I got enough distance I pulled the time-honoured stunt of carefully laying my bike down on the side of the road with me lying beside it in fake agony. Childish I know – but as Dom rounded the corner and soon realized it was a set up we both cracked up at the look on the faces of the 2 old fellas standing nearby, who watched bemused as I enacted my little prank. It was a tall order to beat the race back to Como on the lower road but we tried a bit of “through & off” and 45 mins later we flew into the town centre just in time to see the final sprint.

Mr. and Mrs. Simoni consult their security advisor about the best way to handle stalkers!

As we rode back to our car we stumbled into an amazingly fresh looking Simoni who’d not had a bad week with his win in the Giro D’Emilla and 2nd today, he was finishing an interview and heading our way to shower so we rode along side him for a bit and he was happy to chat, saying it had been a “classic” Lombardia very hard with a good result – he also was well aware of PezCycling News and joked he didn’t want his picture ending up a daily distraction!

All in all we’d had a “classic” day ourselves, epic race, great ride, stunning scenery, mad tifosi and although my Bro is now obviously unbearable and the distance between us is inching up every time he recounts the climb – I’m already planning next year for the win.

Paulo Bettini was there ever a question over your win today? of course not you stupid English journalist! next question please…?

As a final bit of Icing on the cake (and in this case the cake was heavily decorated!) we could not have wished for more. That is until we only returned home to flick on the box to relax with a well earned beer and who should we see but The Man currently wowing Italian Saturday Night audiences, Mr. Mario Cipollini, himself was all over our screen starring in the latest TV sensation “Dance with the Stars” – now that is a classic ending.

Hey Cipo – shame you can’t dance like you could sprint – but the outfits are just as amusing.

• Fancy Nick’s togs? Check out the Rapha.cc website for more info.

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